Tales from the Tech Side: A look at Doctor or Doctress from our developer

 Digital history, Happenings  Comments Off on Tales from the Tech Side: A look at Doctor or Doctress from our developer
Nov 212014
 

-by guest blogger Chris Clement, Library Applications Developer, Drexel University Libraries

Doctor or Doctress is a digital history project that enables students to to understand and interpret history through the eyes of early women physicians by using primary sources. While much has been said about the content, the development and underlying technologies of the site have not been discussed.

Doctor or Doctress is built on top of a piece of software called Islandora, which provides a user-friendly interface that allows the addition of content to the underlying repository software, Fedora.  The content in Doctor or Doctress is broken down into stories, which are comprised of a timeline, a set of documents (images, books, audio, and video), and textual/narrative information. Each story and document in Islandora is a Fedora object that has a unique persistent identifier (PID) and a set of datastreams, which store the content of the uploaded document and any additional data associated with that object. The largest technical challenges of building this site were getting multiple types of content to display on a single page, integrating a timeline into each story, and tying everything together through administrative interfaces.

When I first started work on Doctor or Doctress, displaying multiple types of content on a single page in Islandora was not something I had seen done.  Every object in Islandora has a content type associated with it (PDF, large image, video, etc.)  To handle the unique display requirements, I created a new “story” content type. Story objects have additional custom datastreams that specify the IDs of related documents, story- and document-level metadata, and timeline data. I also created custom layouts for stories and documents to allow the display of images, video/audio players, and book readers on the same page. These layouts were loosely based on default layouts for individual content types.

Similar to displaying multiple content types on a single page, timeline integration and display was another feature I had failed to find on any other Islandora site.  After reviewing the features and capabilities of various timeline tools and libraries with the Legacy Center staff, we settled on Timeglider, a Javascript-based tool for creating timelines. To integrate Timeglider with Islandora, I implemented a mechanism to transform timeline data associated with a story into JSON, a format understandable by Timeglider. This mechanism took into account special timeline events that were associated with a story document, displaying that document’s thumbnail along the top of the timeline above the corresponding event.  Additionally, I wrote a custom event handler to define a custom popup window to appear when users click story document events.

Designing a way to allow administrators to create new stories, associate documents, and populate timelines was not trivial. Islandora provides a tool for building web forms for gathering data from users and populating whole datastreams when adding an object. For story creation and document association, I created a standard story-level metadata form, as well as a document-level metadata form, and set them up to populate custom datastreams on the story object. I designed an interface for populating the timeline for a story as well, allowing administrators to manage events, specifying a number of parameters such as start date, end date, title, description, and an option to link  a story document to an event.

Working on Doctor or Doctress was very rewarding. The unique nature of the site, combined with the underlying technologies, provided a set of interesting challenges to overcome. Tough decisions had to be made, but I think the end result speaks for itself. I am proud to have been a part of this project, and look forward to seeing it continue to grow.

Check out Doctor or Doctress here!  You can follow Chris on Twitter @Null_is_Null

“We give our vote for a lady physician here”:
Welcoming Doctor or Doctress

 Digital history, Education and outreach, Happenings  Comments Off on “We give our vote for a lady physician here”:
Welcoming Doctor or Doctress
Sep 232014
 

Our long-awaited (and worked upon) digital history project is finally what we can call “complete”!

Please welcome Doctor or Doctress: Exploring American history through the eyes of women physicians. Doctor or Doctress is not just a digital collections website or online exhibit; it is both, and something more.

Our original intention for Doctor or Doctress was “to enable students to become history detectives, conducting their own research in American history by exploring the stories of pioneering medical women.” We wanted to create a website that featured our collection material as ‘stories’; as a new way to discover, engage with, and interpret primary source documents. We wanted to create a site that would allow primary source material to reach and be interesting to high school students. High school students are generally underserved by resources like digital collections and online exhibits. Students don’t know to look for them, and if they find them, may not know how valuable and engaging they can be. Such sites don’t often market to high schools students; however, at least in the archives field, outreach to younger people is a hot discussion topic, and one that many repositories are acting upon.  But that’s another blog post.

Our ‘stories’ are created around primary source documents. These materials are put into a larger historical context, giving students a chance to place individual people in events during American history, and allowing them to connect with history in a more meaningful way.  The core documents of each story can be explored in several ways: a digital version of the original, through an excerpted typed transcript, or through an audio file (a huge hit with students!). Discussion questions help guide interpretation and give students a focus when interacting with historical documents.

Our development team customized the out-of-the-box Islandora software, allowing it to support this complex interpretive content and functionality that makes Doctor or Doctress stand out from standard collections management databases.  Islandora’s potential for an innovative collections management database and exhibit showcase had not been fully explored, so our work was new and, of course, quite challenging at times.  However, the end result meets our requirements, is attractive, and functions well, and because Islandora is open-source, others can learn from our project.

It’s hard to believe that the project formerly known as “the digital history toolkit” is now complete, and ready for Phase II development (which will include more content and possibly more interactive features).  From post-it notes to the web, it’s been a challenging, but satisfying, journey to Doctor or Doctress.

Beta has arrived for Doctor or Doctress?

 Digital history, Happenings, On the move  Comments Off on Beta has arrived for Doctor or Doctress?
May 122014
 

As April rolls into May, our (now named!) digital history project is now in its beta testing phase.  We are sending it off to our project advisors and to The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (our grant funders) for some feedback.  We’re especially excited to hear back from all the students and teachers who have tested out our story content and site functionality over the past three years.  While we still have some kinks – design-wise and interface-wise – to work out, we can say that we’re happy with the outcome, albeit exhausted.

More news about “Doctor or Doctress?” coming in September as we plan for our ‘official’ launch.  For more project and grant information, see our earlier blog, Playing with the Past: A Digital History Toolkit, or visit the interpretation planning section of our website here.

 

Almost beta: High school students and our (yet unnamed) digital history project

 Digital history, Happenings  Comments Off on Almost beta: High school students and our (yet unnamed) digital history project
Feb 132014
 

Well before (okay, at least a few months before) our digital history project will be launched, we visited two Philadelphia-area high schools last month to test our website in its beginning stages.  We focused on one story: “Two Women, Two Paths: Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans.” (An earlier blog post about testing the story content can be found at: Two Women, Two Paths.)  Our goal was to find out how the students navigated our as-of-yet rather basic site, and to make changes to the design, navigation, and user interface based upon our results.

As of now, our story includes about five ‘core documents,’ the ones we rely on as evidence; several ‘related documents,’ meant to enrich the content; a ‘background,’ which tells the story and gives general historical context pertaining to it; questions to consider while browsing through the documents; and a teaser video.  Each core document has attached to it a brief description, an image of the original, a transcript of the excerpted sections and audio to complement it, questions for discussion, and a ‘why it matters’ section, designed to let users know why this document is important as evidence to the story (or in general!).

Whew! Not too much content to fit into one page (for the stories)…or a pop-up window (for the documents), correct?

So several of the staff members here, along with a colleague from the Drexel Library, set out to see how students interacted with the page, knowing that the feedback might mean a lot more work, but in the end would create a better user experience.

Not surprisingly, many students watched the video first.  Some felt it was too short; the video was only 60 seconds.  Others felt the video was “too general” and would have liked it to provide more information about the story.

Students also seemed to like having the transcript and the audio for the documents.  They questioned the placement of the audio player, and some didn’t know the transcript was underneath the player.  Other students found the navigation on the viewer to be troublesome.  However, a lot of students commented they enjoyed being able to see the original document, and that the transcript and audio made it easier to figure out the handwriting and follow along.

Because our project is still in its early development phases, students had various comments about navigation: they found it hard to scroll from horizontally, as an example.  Many students said the pictures and the videos caught their eyes first; this is what we kind of expected, although it’s good to have confirmation.  Another rather common comment was that they way the content was presented felt a bit overwhelming; they wanted a cleaner layout with more visual components and one that was more aesthetically pleasing.

Overall, we found that students enjoyed going through the stories, and may wanted to “know more.” (Ah, the nature of archival material!)  Although they enjoyed using it, most said they wouldn’t visit the site unless it was for an assignment, which isn’t too surprising.  They found the questions and the ‘why it matters’ section useful for hypothetical assignments, although many admitted they wouldn’t bother with those if they were just browsing out of interest; again, not surprising.

While we have much feedback to wade through and changes to be worked out, it was fantastic seeing students enjoying seeing all this “old stuff” and really digging the images of original documents.

Timelines as exhibits?

 Digital history, On the move  Comments Off on Timelines as exhibits?
Nov 202013
 

One of the features we hope to have as part of our digital history project is an interactive timeline.  We want our users to be able to use the timeline to explore the stories – none of these static, boring, text-only timelines most of us are familiar with.  Browsing the depths of digital exhibits and collections on the web – not to mention history websites – has led us to discover some pretty cool timelines.  Here are 3 of our favorites:

For example, Neatline offers the ability to connect your timeline with a map and with documents plotted on that map.  Mousing over the documents gives the user the title, and clicking on it brings up a lightbox containing whatever metadata your heart desires: it could be a transcript, a detailed description, or something as basic as a catalog record.

Neatline is a great tool; the problem is that it only plays nicely with Omeka, and it’s unlikely we would have the means necessary to create something from scratch with the same functionality.  However, it’s still fun to play around with!

We’ve also been checking out Chronozoom.  It has really a nice zoomability feature, and clicking on an event from the timeline zooms in to what reminds me of a Prezi presentation, with several ‘slides’ for each event.  We haven’t looked into whether it will work well with Islandora, but this could be an interesting way to present the stories, with each one being its own event on an overall timeline.  Some events have videos included, so it’s great knowing we would have that capability.

 

Finally, there’s also Timeglider.  This one also has a nice zooming ability feature, and we like the document thumbnails featured at the top of the timeline.  It seems like the events can be categorized, which is an attractive feature; perhaps one color for a story, and one for general, contextual events.  Like Neatline, Timeglider also provides a nice little lightbox when clicking a document or a link, but doesn’t seem to have a mouse-over feature.  Again, we haven’t looked into how (or if) Timeglider would work with Islandora, but we’re excited to find out.

It’s hard to narrow down our choices in which timelines to explore further; these 3 are just a few that seemed fun, interesting, and engaging.  Over the next few months, we’ll be putting more thought into this part of our project.  Questions we’ll need to answer include: “What works best for our audience?  What’s the best way to integrate/implement a timeline and map into our stories?  How big of a feature do we want this to be?”  And of course, the most sensible question, “Can we do it?”

On The Move … Again

 Digital history, Happenings, On the move  Comments Off on On The Move … Again
Jul 182013
 

The Legacy Center is once again contemplating a move but this time it’s a virtual one.  As part of a wider digital history project to encourage young students’ understanding and interpretation of history through primary documents, the Center is adopting a new software called Islandora to manage and preserve its repository.  Islandora

Developed at the University of Prince Edward Island, Islandora is an open-source software designed to preserve and manage the data that is associated with an institution’s collection. Since Islandora’s creation in 2006 it has been installed at over 60 institutions around the world, ranging from small research labs to university libraries to major museums.

Having looked at other possibilities such as Collective Access or building onto our existing custom system, we were attracted to Islandora because of its integration with Drupal. We had considered Fedora in the past but found it cumbersome.  Because Islandora works with Drupal’s content management system, not only does it manage objects, it makes it easy to preserve their digital form.

Legacy Center Digital Collections

Our current digital collections interface

We are still at the early stages of this process. Working with our colleagues at the Drexel Libraries,  we are just starting to learn what Islandora can do for us and how we can customize it to meet our needs. So far we have learned how to add objects like images and multi-page objects such as books and small pamphlets, add metadata, and view and modify datastreams.

We’ve encountered a few challenges so far. One of our biggest tasks is not related to the software directly but critical to our project nonetheless: prioritizing our objectives. How do we make the best use of our budget?  How do we incorporate the needs of our diverse user group, from academic researchers to high school students? Do we focus on just the digital history project initially or the entire collection?

One of our top priorities is ensuring we make the best use of our budget. Since this project is grant funded by Pew’s Heritage Philadelphia Program we have pretty strict rules about how we spend our money. Even though the software is open source we’re working with Discovery Garden (DGI), Islandora’s development and client solutions team, for the initial installation and some training. We’re still determining what other project components we’ll outsource and what we’ll manage in-house.

Another challenge we face is in understanding error messages and how to fix them.  Some of the metadata we have entered for objects seems to disappear. Thankfully, between DGI, our library colleagues, and the Islandora Google Groups forum we are confident that we can troubleshoot the problem.

Our goal is to have Islandora ready for testing in late fall, populated with all our digital history project items as we prepare for a full migration of our digital database. Eventually we hope to expand the number of resources available digitally and continually offer new ways for users to interact and explore primary documents. Stay tuned as the project evolves and we learn more about Islandora. To learn more about the digital history project, visit: http://archives.drexelmed.edu/ip_home.php

 Posted by on July 18, 2013
Dec 112012
 

– by guest blogger, Chrissie Perella, iSchool grad student and intern extraordinaire

As work on our project, Playing with the Past, steps into high gear, we are busy researching and writing “stories” – the content which will interest our audience and make them want to read more.  In our collections, we have many compelling stories of early women doctors; finding someone or several someones who make an interesting read isn’t the problem.  Just like curating live exhibits, we often struggle with several problems:

Do we have enough ‘stuff’ (aka primary sources) in our collection to tell the story we want to?  What is the exact story we want to tell?  We have more than enough ‘stuff’ – how do we narrow it down?

And finally, and perhaps the most important questions: Will our audience find it as interesting as we do?  Will they be able to connect to it in some meaningful way?  Will they ‘get’ the story we’re attempting to tell using all this old stuff?

In Civil War dress, 1864

The most recent story I’ve been working on is about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who was the only woman to serve in the American Civil War as a surgeon and the only woman to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor.  Later in life, she became a staunch supporter of woman’s dress reform. I found a woman described as “…the first American woman to wear publically bloomers, yet her patent leather boots and plumed hat gave her a very dainty appearance. She was not pretty, but she was far from being ugly.”  Her radical way of dressing (she eventually ditched the dress altogether and went for a Prince Albert jacket, trousers, and a silk top hat) and her outspoken manner seemed to have proved too much for other women reformists. However, she was also known to offer help to anyone in need, and one woman wrote that meeting Walker was her inspiration to become a nurse.

She’s an interesting woman, for sure, with an interesting story.  So what’s the problem?  For one thing, we don’t have a collection of her stuff; we have the Lida Poynter papers, which consist of research work done by Lida Poynter in the late 1920s and 1930s for a biography of Mary Walker.  As far as we know, it was never published.  Don’t get me wrong – Poynter’s collection has a ton of good stuff, including letters to her from people who remember Mary Walker, newsclippings, and fantastic photographs.  What we’re short on, of course, are letters written to Walker; sadly, we have no more than three or four of these.  By using these letters, we are creating another layer between our audience and Walker’s story – something that is often unavoidable when dealing with archival material, but never preferential.

Working notes for Dr. Mary

The other problem?  What part of her life do we want to showcase – the woman Civil War doctor or the dress reform supporter?  Obviously, you can’t ignore either, but focusing on one makes the story that much more  compelling.  Making this decision will make choosing what documents to use – and there’s certainly no shortage from which to choose!  And I have to keep in mind our audience; for this digital history toolkit, it’s high school students.  So I don’t want to find extremely lengthy letters that go on about the weather – or if I do, they have to be able to cut, leaving only the ‘juicy bits’.

As far as archival work goes, this is some of the most challenging and most fun.  it’s a lot like building an exhibit, but with the knowledge that these documents will be used to help students get excited about history and learn why primary documents are cool. I’ve got a tall order to fill.

 

Playing with the Past: A Digital History Toolkit

 Digital history, Happenings  Comments Off on Playing with the Past: A Digital History Toolkit
Sep 172012
 

The Legacy Center was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Heritage Philadelphia Program (HPP) of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to develop Playing with the Past: A Digital History Toolkit, a web resource that will make the our rich online Women in Medicine collection easily accessible to a new audience of high school students.

Typically, the only members of the public to interact with these materials are our researchers.  By creating a new way to access and interpret these primary sources, we hope to inspire high school students – and others – to enjoy history and encourage them to use historical documents to learn about the past.

While our project was in the planning stages, we found that high school students care deeply about gender inequality and social justice.  Using two of our ‘story’ ideas, these students read newspaper clippings, letters, and diary entries to delve into the lives of some of our early women physicians.  Approaching historical topics through the lens of individual women’s experience provides, in the words of one student, “a way in,” to history for students who are unmoved by traditional history curricula.  It provides a way for students to learn and understand that history is not just straight facts; history is people, and can be told from many differing viewpoints.

             

 

 

 

 

For those of you not familiar with us or our collections, our repository holds not only the records for Drexel University College of Medicine, but its predecessor institutions as well, including Hahnemann Medical College and Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.  Woman’s Med was the first medical school for women in the United States, and was founded in 1850 in Philadelphia.  With such a rich history, much of our materials are related to these early pioneering women doctors and the obstacles they overcame.

Our collections give substance and meaning to what students are facing today, while encouraging historically informed civic engagement and inspiring young people, especially girls, to pursue careers in science and medicine.  With Playing with the Past, we hope to teach students not only how to work with primary sources, but to love history as well.

More information about the grant can be found at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Pew 2012 Grantee Press Release.

 Posted by on September 17, 2012

“Go tomorrow to the hospital to see the She Doctors!”

 Digital history, Education and outreach, From the collections  Comments Off on “Go tomorrow to the hospital to see the She Doctors!”
Feb 232012
 

"BLACKGUARDISM. The Pennsylvania Hospital on Saturday was the scene of an outrage..." from the Evening Bulletin, November 8, 1869. Document was abridged for the students.

Last week, Legacy Center staff presented a program to fifty seventh-grade students at the all-girls middle school of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.   The students were in the midst of “middle-session” – a week of interdisciplinary project-based study.  Their project for the week was to create a newspaper based on “The Philadelphia You Never Knew.”  Using documents from our Women in Medicine collection, we explored a little-known Philadelphia story from 1869:  The Jeering Episode. The Jeering Episode, as it’s become known, refers to a day in 1869 when a group of students from Woman’s Medical College were harassed and verbally abused (epithets, spitballs, cat-calls) by male medical students when they attended a clinical lecture at Pennsylvania Hospital.  The incident resonated with Woman’s Med students for generations as a symbol of their struggles to gain acceptance in the medical profession, and was key to the formation of the collective identity and institutional memory of Woman’s Med faculty and students.

Since this history is primarily documented though newspaper clippings collected in a scrapbook kept by WMCP student Eliza Wood-Armitage (class of 1870), the Jeering Episode also provided an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how to use newspapers to piece together what happened and to investigate how people felt about the incident at the time, as reflected by the press reports and editorials.

One of the pages from Eliza Wood-Armitage's scrapbook that documents the Jeering Episode in 1869. The upper left column, inscribed by her, reads, in part: "I was a student at the Woman's College & was one of the students in this trouble at the hospital."

We also wanted to provide some  perspective and show how the Jeering Episode, occurring almost 20 years after the 1850 founding of Woman’s Med, was a turning point for the school that became a shared memory for all of the students that came after.  Among the 1869 news clippings we included a diary entry  from Sarah Hibbard (WMCP 1870), a Woman’s Med  student present at the incident reflecting upon the incident a few years later,  and a 1926 clipping of an interview with Anna Broomall (WMCP 1871),  another student who was present at what she calls “the mob of ’69.”  Both pieces reveal how the passage of time affects the womens’ perceptions of the event, and illustrate the difference between reporting versus remembering.

Hibbard, from her diary, early 1870s:  “…the conduct of the male students…needs no comments further than to say, that their “loss was our gain,’ for certainly they did lose and & certainly we did gain… if these poor fellows had sought to do us a life long favor they could not have done it more effectively than they did in their conduct towards us during those sessions.

 

Broomall, from a 1926 interview:  “A friend of mine…handed me a slip of paper that had been passed among  students of the University…I have the paper still. It read, ” go tomorrow to the hospital to see the She Doctors!”…Next day, when we turned up at the clinic…pandemonium broke loose…The present generation should be given to know what such women have done for all other women.”

 

Before we arrived, the students had spent the morning learning about the parts of a newspaper–masthead, headlines, columns, by-lines– and the difference between reportage and editorials.

But we still didn’t know how much they knew–about the history of discrimination against women (although this being an all-girls school, we suspected that there was some awareness of the issues around single-sex education), about the way news is created and distributed, about how history is documented and preserved.  Does a 12-year old in 2012 know what a physical, pages-pasted-in scrapbook is?  Had any of them ever read a hardcopy newspaper before today? To 12- and 13-year-olds, a newspaper is as remote an artifact as a typewriter, a rotary telephone, or a spinning jenny for that matter.  For kids this young, the range of what constitutes “history” is of course much longer, but is it also somewhat collapsed? Is old just old, whether it’s from 1870 or 1970?

Our goals for the session were to impart the content (the story), to give a crash-course on how to use historical newspapers, and to stimulate some bigger-picture thinking about how memory and history are made. How do we balance reading comprehension, document analysis,  historical thinking skills, and provide enough context to make it all effective and engaging for 50 students in 60 minutes?

We selected six documents from the collection, and gave each group of students two of those documents to read. We asked them a lot of questions so that they would be the ones interrogating the material and telling each other parts of the story. And we were prepared to follow the discussion wherever it took it us. Below are some highlights of the ensuing discussion.

In 1 WORD, describe how this story made you feel when you read it.

  • sexist
  • unsurprised
  • disgusted
  • appalled
  • empowering
  • unfair
  • disrespectful

These students did not seem to be flummoxed by the language of 19th-century newspapers — the archaic words, the decidedly non-objective language, the use of 40 words when 10 would suffice…So once we knew they “got” it, and reacted accordingly, we asked them to dig a little deeper — the document analysis portion of the program:

Who wrote this document? (Man or woman? Where they present at the incident? Other thoughts?)

What did they think about the incident? (What was the point of view?)

Circle specific words or phrases within the document that support your answer.

Considering that none of the newspaper clippings had by-lines, the students had to make their educated guesses based solely on the text.  Most correctly deduced that the majority of the clippings were authored by men who had not been present at the event, but who were sympathetic to the female students and simultaneously outraged at the male students’ behavior.  There were some questions about whether there were female journalists at the time, since some of the articles were so intensely pro-woman. One group with the Anna Broomall clipping figured out that whether it was written by a man or a woman, it was clearly an interview with Broomall and consisted mainly of her thoughts and recollections.  One notable exception to all of the pro-woman sentiment was the article entitled, “The Other Side,” written by a male student who claimed to be present that day, and who vehemently denied that any harassment of the women took place. “ I… positively assert that no one in female attire was hissed, hooted, or insulted.” He also vehemently denied that the women were in fact, real women — one student seized on this, er, colorful quote:

“Who is this shameless heard of sexless beings who dishonor the garb of ladies—this beardless set of non-blushers who infest the rights of four-hundred regular medical students…?”

"The Other Side." Re-published in several newspapers in November 1869. Document was abridged for the students.

Our go-to question for student groups: What do you wish you knew that isn’t in these documents?

  • Were there women journalists at this time? [c.1869]
  • What happened after [the Jeering Epsiode]?
  • How they came to an agreement since woman can become doctors now
  • Did the women learn anything at the lecture that day?
  • What were the men thinking when they acted that way [harassed the women] and what did they think afterward?
  • Why did woman’s Med eventually let men in ? [WMC went co-ed in 1970, a hundred years after the Jeering Episode]
  • How did they get permission to start an all-female medical school? [WMC was founded in 1850]
  • Did the men get in trouble?
  • If there were no women doctors, were there women professors to teach the female students when WMC first opened?
  • What gave the men the right to think that they were better than women?

This points to perhaps the most important lesson for the budding historian: research in the archives  usually raises more questions than it answers. And the Springside students certainly asked some excellent ones. Most of them are answerable by digging further into our collection; others, not so much. Especially that last one.

You can see the all six documents used in the session, in their unedited versions, here  

 

 Posted by on February 23, 2012
May 092011
 

How do high school students feel about history?  We visited Constitution High School in Center City, Philadelphia, just a few weeks ago to find out.  We were pleasantly surprised how involved the students were.  We divided each session (of which there were four) into three parts: two “history detective”-type activities using primary sources and a discussion period that included a brief questionnaire asking them to evaluate the experience.  The first activity we had the students do was compare and contrast the careers of Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans.

Eliza Grier was an emancipated slave who graduated from WMCP in 1897. She supported herself through college by picking cotton and received some financial assistance to attend WMCP. After her training, Grier practiced medicine in an impoverished area of South Carolina for a short time before her death in 1901.

 

Matilda Evans (d. 1935) graduated from WMCP in 1897. She practiced medicine in Columbia, South Carolina where Dr. Evans founded several institutions for black medical professionals and patients including two hospitals and a nursing school.

 

We verbally presented basic contextual/background information about Woman’s Medical College and  then distributed a set of documents (2 letters and 2 photographs) to each student that provided clues to the lives of Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans, two African American women who both graduated from Woman’s Med in 1897, but whose career paths diverged greatly.

Students were then given a worksheet with the contextual information and one question/prompt to think about in preparation for discussion: “After they both graduated medical school in 1897, did Eliza Grier and Matilda each become a successful doctor?”

After the students had time to read through everything, we began the discussion by asking them what they knew about each woman from the sources provided; what they couldn’t determine but  wanted to know; and then asked them to compare and contrast the two women’s careers based on the evidence. We recorded their responses on the white board and collected their worksheets if they were filled in.

 

Though they enjoyed the process of piecing the stories together, the students also expressed the desire for more background information about Grier and Evans, and often cited these gaps in their stories as the most frustrating thing about the activity.  They had many questions and wanted to know Grier’s and Evans’s whole stories, what their backgrounds and childhoods were like, if they knew each other, what happened to them after they wrote their letters, etc.

The reactions to the Grier and Evans stories confirmed our thinking that students will be interested in these types of personal, biographical stories, accompanied by photographs that further aid in identifying with the “characters.”  We expected, and it was borne out, that the students’ verbal answers to some of the prompts during the discussions would differ from their original written answers because they would pick up more and more info from listening to each other during the discussion.

In Session 1 ( 9th &10th graders), the students’ written answers to the worksheet question, After they both graduated medical school in 1897, did Eliza Grier and Matilda each become successful doctors?  were mostly “yes,” though the evidence showed, as the students acknowledged in the discussion, that Grier and Evans had very different levels of success.  They answered the written question as if we had asked if they became doctors at all, not if they became successful doctors.  But when we asked them to put her story together from the evidence in the discussion portion, they came to a more nuanced (and more accurate) conclusion about the differences between the two women’s situations.

When we told the students and how much we emphasized the fact that Eliza Grier was born a slave seemed to affect their level of empathy for and understanding of her situation.  We told the Session 1 students in fairly deliberate way early on in the discussion; we told the Session 2 students almost as an afterthought once their discussion was well underway and that had formed their opinions and conclusions. By that time the Session 2 students were markedly less sympathetic to Grier’s plight and were asking questions along the lines of:  “If she was a doctor why did she get so sick? Couldn’t she heal herself? If she was doctor why couldn’t she pay her rent?”

This group of students, although they don’t all love history, are predisposed to being interested and engaged with primary sources or at least have high exposure to primary sources, given CHS’s mission (history and civic engagement), and strong NHD participation.  Additionally, both groups of students were selected from voluntary clubs (mock trial, historical society) at a history and civics-focused high school, so their high levels of engagement with the activities are not representative of most students.  But the differences in the type of engagement between grade levels, even among this group, were very instructive.

Using these activities made it hard to extricate content from process; when asked what they specifically liked and didn’t like about both the process and the content (the story), their answers often conflated the two.  The students enjoyed playing history detective and were curious about the gaps in the stories; the gaps kept them interested in the content and wanting to know more.

While still in the early stages of our research, it is promising that students will get involved and seem to enjoy “doing” history using primary sources, first-hand accounts, and photographs; if history is presented as a “story.”

 Posted by on May 9, 2011